USDA gives final approval for faster hog processing line speeds

Unsurprisingly, animal welfare and worker health advocates aren’t pleased.

The United States Department of Agriculture on Tuesday released a final rule permitting faster line speeds at hog processing plants, a long-anticipated change that parallels recent developments in the poultry industry. 

The new rule allows slaughterhouses to opt in to the New Swine Slaughter Inspection System (inexplicably, NSIS), a “modernized” system that eliminates maximum line speeds and shifts some of the responsibility for removing sick animals from the processing line from USDA inspectors to plant employees. A version of the NSIS has been operating as a pilot in five plants since the 1990s. The rule also mandates some additional food safety testing across the board. 

Meatpacking workers are injured at a rate 2.4 times the national average.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the NSIS is popular with the pork industry and unpopular with food safety and worker health advocates. In a press release, the president of the National Pork Producers Council said the new inspection system “incentivizes investment in new technologies,” while also “enhancing safety, quality, and consistency.”

Food safety advocates have cautioned that the changes will allow contaminated meat to slip through the cracks. In a press release, Food and Water Watch likened the shift from inspectors to plant employees to “the fox guarding the henhouse.” The Center for Biological Diversity called it an “absurd, backward step toward the industrial lawlessness of the 19th century.” 

But the agency’s Food Safety and Inspection Service argues that the changes will free up inspectors to spend more time on inspection tasks that take place outside the fast-paced slaughter line, like verifying that certain sanitation requirements are being met. Food Safety News’ Dan Flynn notes that line speeds may not increase all that much under NSIS: The current limit is 1,106 pigs per hour, and while the new inspection system eliminates the limit, the pilot project plants averaged 1,099 pigs per hour, below the existing threshold.

Worker health advocates have also opposed the change. In an appeal to members to submit comments on the new rule, the National Employment Law Project encouraged people to cite the fact that “the faster the line speed, the greater risk of harm to workers and consumers” and that meatpacking workers are injured at a rate 2.4 times the national average. Furthermore, FSIS has been accused of relying on faulty data when it assured the public that the pilot plants did not have higher injuries than traditional facilities. Two academics analyzed the agency’s data and found it was “impossible” to draw statistically valid conclusions, The Washington Post reports. Members of Congress subsequently called for an investigation, and the Inspector General’s office took up the issue. 

The IG’s office is currently evaluating whether or not USDA’s safety evaluation of the pilot plants was valid. As Politico notes, the House’s version of the 2020 agriculture appropriations bill includes an amendment that would block the rollout of the new rule until the investigation is complete.

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H. Claire Brown is a senior staff writer for The Counter. Her work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The Guardian, and The Intercept and has won awards from the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing, the New York Press Club, the Newswomen's Club of New York, and others. A North Carolina native, she now lives in Brooklyn.